Air Force Special Operations Forces Train for Next Dynamic Battlefront

A U.S. Air Force airman from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron swims to a boat after rescuing a simulated crash victim at Whynnehaven Beach, Fla., April 9, 2013. (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Christopher Callaway)
A U.S. Air Force airman from the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron swims to a boat after rescuing a simulated crash victim at Whynnehaven Beach, Florida, April 9, 2013. (Airman 1st Class Christopher Callaway/U.S. Air Force)

HURLBURT FIELD, Florida -- A U.S. special tactics operator saw the urgency for airstrikes to diffuse an oncoming firefight from Taliban combatants in Afghanistan recently.

The AC-130 gunship circling overhead delivered 105mm cannon rounds so precise, they screeched down just 13 meters from where U.S. and coalition troops were located, according to Col. Michael Martin, 24th Special Operations Wing commander.

From air to ground assault, Air Force and Army special operators, along with coalition partners, work together in fast-paced environments to coordinate targeted attacks. The contingents are fully "committed to fusing air and ground maneuver to defeat the enemy," Martin said of campaigns evolving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Air Force personnel "are involved" in ongoing operations across Mosul, including calling in precision strikes, Martin told on Thursday.

U.S. troops serving as advisers were moving with elite Iraqi forces outside the city units just last week, but remained behind the "forward line of" Iraqi Counter Terror Service units, according to Air Force Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.

Martin provided a few more details.

Special tactics airmen are "dismounted on foot, and guys in operations providing a level of support to our Iraqi counterparts to put lethal fires precisely on our targets and enable them to continue the advance," Martin said.

He declined to comment on U.S. elite forces' involvement in the assault on Raqqa, Syria, which began earlier this month.

RELATED: US Ground Troops Now Likely Inside Mosul

'We've Got Their Back'

Air Force Special Operations Command members continuously train for the kind of battle U.S. troops have been perfecting since the height of conflict in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. However, the responsibilities and tasks of thwarting the enemy now belong "to the guys we've invested a lot of our time training," Martin said.

"The violence that the enemy wants to project continues. They're unevaded, they're going to be more deliberate and more tactically focused," he said. "But some of these fights aren't our fight -- we're here to enable and support, so we might not be standing shoulder to shoulder, but behind. We've got their back."

Martin reiterated, "We're not the guy in the door first; we're the guy in the door second now in Iraq, Afghanistan -- fighting the Islamic State, the Taliban and so on."

Last week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter traveled to Hurlburt Field to witness the Air Force's 21 Special Tactics Squadron and 8th Special Operations Squadron, and the Army's 7th Special Forces Group training under similar, hostile circumstances.

Carter observed personnel recovery training, a "core mission for us that we currently are deployed supporting in that capacity," Martin said.

"Very specifically, today we were looking at a number of the special operations forces' assault capabilities," Carter said. "This is a kind of capability that we use nearly every day, somewhere in the world."

But it speaks to what the special operators might face next.

The Next 'Gray Zone'

Martin said AFSOC units, for example, are spending time on training focused on how quickly units can position themselves for the next fight, one where planning and details could change instantly.

"The military, we thrive on what is a requirement, and we have strategies and theories and vision statements that we try to drive toward," Martin said in a follow-up interview Friday.

But now is the time to turn a watchful eye East, Martin said, to the conflicts in Ukraine and threats from adversaries such as North Korea. Paying attention to "how they have evolved, what does that mean in a contested or degraded environment based on their capability? It's drastically different than dealing with a counterterrorism threat."

In the next few years, he said, expect a shift in AFSOC operations to the anti-access area denial space, or A2/AD -- which more broadly refers to weapons and capabilities designed to keep the U.S. from approaching or encroaching upon foreign territories and holdings, or prohibiting access to global common areas.

RELATED: Pentagon Wants Technologies for Multi-Domain Battle

One example Martin pinpointed was "getting A-10s to land on highways in Estonia" in June, the first time the aircraft practiced a highway landing since 1984, according to The Washington Post.

"The techniques we use in the Middle East, they don't work so well in Eastern Europe, or let's say the Republic of Korea because those environments don't support it in the austere sense [because] we rely on the infrastructure we have in place that would enable us to be more precise, or more lethal," he said.

In these locations, basic communication technologies "could be taken away from us really, really quickly, so we have to understand if it's taken away, what is our other option?" Martin said, referring to urban warfare techniques Russian forces have used to jam signals in Eastern Ukraine.

For months, Russian-backed separatists have used electronic warfare to misdirect or take out commercial drones Ukrainian soldiers use to conduct aerial surveillance. The move, first observed in 2014, triggered U.S. troops to keep watch as they trained Ukrainian guardsmen on the western side of the country.

Practicing With Humanitarian Relief

Special Tactics Airmen from the 21st Special Tactics Squadron were prepped to drop into Haiti after Category 4 Hurricane Matthew ravaged the island, showing the flexibility of Special Tactics capabilities on the spectrum of combat and humanitarian missions.

In 2010, Special Tactics Airmen cleared the runway for cargo aircraft carrying aid to land, and relieved personnel injured by the storm.

RELATED: Airmen Detail Hurricane Relief Efforts in Haiti

These "are the same guys that will go to Europe and will operate in the next six months to do some of these activities with our partner nations in NATO," Martin said.

"We're all in for the contested and degraded environments, or the 'gray zone,' " Martin continued, "because some of our skill sets work well in humanitarian and disaster relief."

The airmen will then head back to the Central Command theater for more counterterrorism operations.

And that's the point, Martin said. From engaging in firefights, to confined space rescue or clearing and establishing an airfield, the goal for special operators will be to understand and balance all demands put on them.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify Col. Martin's comments.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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